By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
VIDEO: Hawks vs. Pacers: Game 7
INDIANAPOLIS – Maybe this is how it’s going to go for the Indiana Pacers.
No “A” game, no style points, no drive-by games or series. Real skin-of-their-teeth stuff.
No collapses either, though, not in any complete or fatal sense. Stubbed toes, sure, but no missed steps. No coach or teammate thrown under the bus, even if Frank Vogel and Roy Hibbert had a few telltale scuff marks from getting kicked briefly to the curb.
The Pacers, the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, dispatched their first-round opponents with a decisive 92-80 beating Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, advancing to the East semifinal round against the Washington Wizards. That represents everything they could have done to this point, right? There was no bye available to skip directly to the East finals, no bonus to be had (beyond a few extra days off) for doing in four or five games what they accomplished in seven.
Then again, it took Indiana the maximum to get past the No. 8 seed, a sub-.500 entry whose best player (Al Horford) hasn’t played a lick since December due to injury. The Pacers were pushed to flex their home-court advantage about a month earlier than they’d planned and even then, they only went 2-2 at BLFH in the series.
Even then, it took the Hawks missing 59 of 79 3-pointers (25.3 percent accuracy) in Games 6 and 7 combined for the Pacers to put them down. Atlanta shot 38.5 percent in the series, 30.4 in the clincher. Indiana did block 13 shots (six by David West, five by Hibbert and a breathtaking snuff at the halftime horn by Ian Mahinmi against a dunk-minded Jeff Teague), but it was clear the Hawks felt they misfired way too often on their own.
“I think it’s always important,” Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer said, “to give the defense credit when we don’t shoot well, but … I thought we had some good looks at the rim, some good looks in transition. We had some good looks at three’s.”
In other words, no disrespect to the Pacers but Paul Millsap (6-of-21), Teague (5-of-16), Mike Scott (5-of-14) and the rest would like a few of those looks again, please.
All of which is to say, Indiana got done what it was supposed to and, frankly, what it had to do to avoid a summer of a thousand cuts. People have been poised to either proclaim the Pacers back or pronounce them dead, and here they are, two weeks into the postseason, right where they and everyone expected them to be.
Mission (gasp!) accomplished.
Dominant? No. Despite Paul George‘s huge game (30 points, 11 rebounds) and series (six double-doubles) and some early-season defensive stats, most inside and outside the Pacers’ circle have been fooled too often by false starts – vs. Chicago, vs. Miami, vs. OKC – to claim they’re back-back.
But disqualified? No, not that either. They remain somewhere in the middle, not exactly who they’d been but stirring a bit from what they had become. No longer headliners, not yet flatliners.
Pacers’ coach Frank Vogel couldn’t lie when asked if the mood in his locker room afterward was more elation or relief. “I don’t know, maybe a little of both,” he said.
Vogel has been the guy with his fingers in the dyke as Indiana, so stellar in the season’s first half, sprang leak after leak after leak. Defense, confidence, George’s shooting, chemistry, Hibbert’s emotional state and so on – Vogel was on the verge of doffing a shoe and a sock, the way the leaks kept opening.
“I don’t feel like we ever strayed that far from who we are, especially on the defensive end,” Vogel said, resolutely half-full vs. half-empty.
Hibbert’s big fade late in the season was blamed on fatigue. His near-disappearance in this series got attributed to a “matchup challenge,” Atlanta’s “stretch five” attack stranding him in no man’s land defensively. While there was considerable truth in that, the 7-foot-2 center and the guys who play around him were relieved that he roused from the slab in Game 7.
He’d been no factor in the previous three, totaling six points, five rebounds and four blocks in 49 minutes. But he topped that in just 31 this time: 13 points, seven rebounds and five blocks. Vogel gave Hibbert credit for 4-for-6 shooting in the first half and the big guy tied for the game’s top plus/minus with 16. He’d been minus-12 in a mere 12 minutes in Game 6.
This was a man who finally could exhale. And look forward to a foe in the next round with some legit bigs (Washington’s Marcin Gortat and Nene).
“Despite what everybody says, we know we’re a good team,” Hibbert said. “Nobody said it was going to be easy. One thing Coach talked to us was, when the Celtics won their  championship, they got taken to seven games by the Atlanta Hawks [in the first round]. So I’m sure people were talking about them as well.”
Uh, not like this.
But that’s where Indiana is at now, the what crowding out the how as they try simply to win four more in the next seven.
“I’m not going to lie and say I wasn’t concerned. Of course,” forward Chris Copeland said. “I hate to get into that. I believe it feeds negativity. I don’t like to acknowledge anything other than the success we’ve had. For me, we should just keep looking up.
“When you keep looking back and saying, ‘We’ve had struggles, and this and that,’ I think it brings on second-guessing yourself. Are we back? You start to question.
“Everything to me, despite the bumps in the road, has gone fine to this point, when you really think about it. Where did we go? We went to the next level. Now we’re 0-0 just like we would like to be. Let’s just keep it moving.”
Maybe it goes like this for Indiana, grimier, less convincing, for another round. Or more.